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High Powered: Comparing the Warriors to the Mid-2000s Pistons

Ben Dowsett breaks down recent Mike Brown comparisons between the Warriors’ D and the mid-2000s Pistons.

Ben Dowsett

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When we make the inevitable historical comparisons to these 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, most will naturally do so on the offensive side of the ball. This is understandable for several reasons, from the relative ease in finding offensive statistical comparison points to the simple visibility of the Dubs’ offensive dominance to even the casual fan. You don’t need advanced basketball knowledge to visually pick up how stunning this team is when they have the ball.

What about when they don’t have it, though? Interim coach Mike Brown recently offered a unique comparison point.

“I’ll never forget, back when I was the head coach of the Cavaliers, we were playing the old Pistons teams with Larry Brown coaching the team – they had a veteran team, you talk about Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and those guys. The thing that I felt that bothered us a lot when we played them [was] they talked their defense through quite a bit. One time down the floor, in a pick-and-roll situation, they’d switch it. Then the next time down the floor, they may blitz it. Next time down the floor, they may push it to the baseline. The following time, they may show. To be able to mix up your defense throughout the course of the game, whether it’s on ball screens or pindowns, is something that can be to the defense’s advantage – but it’s hard to do, in my opinion, unless you have a veteran team that has a good feel. When you talk about Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, to start with – David West inside. We have some intelligent veterans that are able to talk our defense through. So we’ll mix up our coverages. You watch us – we’ll switch sometimes, we won’t switch at other times.”

There’s a lot to digest there. If comparing your team directly to one of the consensus best defenses ever sounds a tad audacious, that’s because it is – but it’s also completely reasonable in this case.

There are some statistical similarities between those dominant mid-2000s Pistons and these Warriors, even beyond their mutual elite finishes year after year. Both teams forced a ton of turnovers and blocked a ton of shots, and both consistently rated near the bottom of the league in fouls committed, a dangerous combination.

But the real similarities went deeper, and Brown hits on them. In case you worry this is a bit of shameless self-promotion, know that opponents – including some who were around for those same Pistons teams – feel the same way.

“He’s comparing them to a great defense, and I would agree,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, recently the victim of a Warriors blitzkrieg. “One of the guys on my staff was an assistant then, Igor Kokoshkov, so we’ve talked about those teams. We’ve talked about the balance of those teams. He’s talked about the communication, so it’s something I’m actually familiar with in a tangible way… You talk about a team with a high IQ, and you think about offense. [But] they have a defensive IQ that’s, you know, Mensa.”

Snyder’s Jazz got a healthy dose of the modern version of this in round two. The Warriors’ switching scheme on the ball has been relatively evident to the discerning hoops fan for a few years now, but they do it just as well away from the ball:

That play is a Jazz staple, a simple little action that nonetheless confounds many unprepared defenses. They begin in a HORNS alignment (a ball-handler at the top of the key, with two players in screening positions at both elbows), and Gordon Hayward comes up as if to set a screen for ball-handler Shelvin Mack:

Before he gets there, though, Hayward slips the screen and immediately takes a new flare screen from Rudy Gobert – the idea is to get Hayward’s man, Klay Thompson in this case, to lean too far the wrong way anticipating the ball screen.

Normally, this is tough for the defense. If the big man guarding Gobert doesn’t recognize what’s happening, Hayward gets a wide open three. Even if the big does recognize it and jumps out to Hayward, the defense often gives up an open rolling lane to Gobert amid the confusion. Best case scenario, the defense usually ends up with a slower big man switched onto Hayward, who can then go to work.

Not for the Warriors, though. They simply switch Draymond Green, a human Swiss Army knife, onto Hayward and Thompson onto Gobert, and the play is dead. With half the shot clock already gone, the Warriors aren’t worried about Thompson’s ability to handle the bigger Gobert for a few seconds, especially with a smart and long helping scheme around him. Thompson even has the savvy to sag way off Gobert and grab the steal during Hayward’s resulting drive.

Some of what Brown is talking about is simply personnel, and Green is the foundation. He’s long drawn comparisons to both of the anchors for those Pistons teams.

These comparisons aren’t new, of course. The similarities to Ben Wallace are pretty obvious, from an undersized stature to an emotional flare for the dramatic. Green has outwardly discussed (and written about) the inspiration he’s drawn from the Pistons’ former afro-toting defensive star, and even if they differ in their precise strengths and roles, it’s easy to see. The comparisons to Rasheed are perhaps less common, but just as apt.

“Ben Wallace is a little different anchoring those defenses, but the communication on the perimeter, the ability to switch,” Snyder said. “I think Rasheed Wallace was probably one of the great defensive communicators that’s ever played the game. But that was something, at least according to Igor too, that we’ve discussed – I look at that and I see Draymond Green a little bit. His ability to communicate and kind of orchestrate.”

Like with many things, we think of “freedom” for elite players almost exclusively on the offensive end – the better a guy is, the more leeway he has to take matters into his own hands and deviate from the plan to help the team. The Warriors “plan” less than virtually anyone, playing through feel far more often, but that same theme is still evident for Draymond on the defensive end.

“He basically has carte blanche, for the most part,” Brown said. “Just like Steph – if he wants to cross halfcourt and pull it from 55 feet, he can do the same. You have guys that are effective in certain areas of the game – you kind of give them a little bit more freedom or rope to do what they can do to help us win the ballgame.”

Green sets the baseline, but the whole thing still wouldn’t have the same overall effect without several other high-IQ guys on the court at all times. With the freedom to make changes on the fly and the hyper-intelligent Green constantly barking out little hints, the Warriors will cycle through each of several coverages Brown mentioned – all within a given game, quarter or even a single sequence.

Here’s David West showing Mack a quick blitz when it looks like Mack might have a step on his man, Ian Clark. Notice how seamlessly Green stays within reach of Gobert, temporarily free as the roll man, before leaping back out to corral his own man, Joe Johnson. Then West makes a great individual play to rip the ball from Gobert for a steal.

Sometimes, they’ll show the blitz, but audible out of it within instants. West is all set to make the same play here, but the moment he notices Green getting over the ball screen more easily than expected, West scurries back to his man and gives Draymond all the time he needs to jack the rock from a befuddled Johnson.

They don’t always need to be so aggressive, though, and opposing personnel plays a big role. When Utah’s Joe Ingles was the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets, for instance, the Warriors generally played a softer coverage: a brief show by the big man, but then a drop back.

The Dubs know Ingles isn’t much of a threat to pull up from midrange, and prefers to either pass or find the layup as long as they keep him from launching a three. JaVale McGee shows him just enough of a body to stop the triple, but then relaxes, allowing Iguodala to stay home on Hayward in the corner and grab the steal when Ingles anticipates more middle help from Iggy:

Hell, they’ll mix it up within the same play depending on how well the screen was set. Look at how Durant and West are all set to play a basic drop-back scheme here on a Johnson-Gobert pick-and-roll, but when Gobert’s second try at the screen is much more effective, West aborts the plan and simply switches onto him, generating yet another turnover.

The Warriors are one of just a handful of teams since those Pistons capable of playing this way based on personnel, but make no mistake about one thing: It takes so much more than just a bunch of long, versatile guys to do this. The collective IQ for this team defense is among the highest in recent memory, and maybe in the game’s history.

Making it even more remarkable is the lack of a traditional rim protector on the floor at virtually all times. McGee has the profile, but he’s a wild jumper who can be moved out of position with basic craft, and he commits way too many goaltends and no-chance leaps that put him out of position. Zaza Pachulia is one of the worst rim protectors in the league for his size.

That really only leaves Green (an elite and thoroughly underrated rim protector, but not in the traditional sense), West (a converted power forward) and Durant, who took a big defensive leap this season that largely went unnoticed amid several other bigger storylines. Durant blocked a higher percentage of opponent shots this year than ever before, and allowed a respectable opponent percentage at the rim, per SportVU figures.

“Just me personally, I’ve never been a huge believer in trying to go get a shot-blocker,” Brown said. “If you have one, great. But I feel like if you have guys who are intelligent, guys who are willing to cover for one another, guys who understand the rule of verticality, then in my opinion, that’s just as good as going and getting a guy that can block shots. And I think all of our guys have a good feel for using the rule of verticality, and then covering for one another.”

Brown’s personal beliefs aside, this is the largest difference between this group and those Pistons defenses.

Those teams had Ben Wallace in a Draymond-ish role, providing a mixture of help-side and on-ball rim protection. But they also had Rasheed as the final line of defense in an era where the power of the three-pointer wasn’t yet fully realized, and the list of bigs who could ever reliably move Rasheed away from his post in the paint was basically Dirk Nowitzki and no one else.

That the Warriors are drawing these comparisons, and that they aren’t ludicrous, is an even greater feat within this context. There’s no Sheed to clean up mistakes; even if there was, there are so many more matchups that could cause problems for these types in today’s game. The biggest area where the two elite defenses diverge is probably the single most impressive part of this Warriors group.

As the playoffs wear on, there’s a real chance these comparisons become the only decent ones left. There just aren’t any contemporary analogies that make sense, or capture the full force of what this team does on both ends. Any team that manages an unlikely four victories in seven over this group will not only have beaten a historically great attack, but also one of the smartest and most unique defenses ever assembled.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

Life After Philadelphia is Just Fine For Turner

Evan Turner goes 1-on-1 with Basketball Insiders to explain how life in Philadelphia shaped the rest of his career.

Dennis Chambers

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Once upon a time, Evan Turner was the second overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and the next man in line to save the Philadelphia 76ers.

After finishing his junior year at Ohio State University, Turner declared for the draft and eventually was taken directly after John Wall by the Sixers. Turner joined a team that won just 27 games the year before, but had more than a few promising young pieces.

Andre Iguodala, a former Sixers top-10 pick in his own right, was the oldest of the core bunch, at just 27. After him, the likes of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, and Spencer Hawes were all under the age of 24. All in all, adding a No. 2 pick to that mix looked to set up the Sixers for years to come.

For the most part, the beginning of Turner’s career was successful. After making the playoffs his rookie season and losing in the first round to the Miami HEAT four games to one, the Sixers pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2011-12 season.

Turner started 12 of those 13 playoff games during his second season, averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 points per game.

Just as Turner seemed to be coming into his own, though, the tides in Philadelphia began to turn, and turn quickly.

His third year in the league, and first year as a full-time starter, came and went for Turner. He posted decent numbers. His 13.6 points per game were second only to Holiday. He was third on the team in assists and sixth in rebounds. In the midst of his fourth season, while averaging a career-high 17.4 points, Turner was traded to the Indiana Pacers.

Newly hired president of basketball operations, Sam Hinkie, had a plan in place that didn’t include Turner. It didn’t include Holiday either, as he was shipped off during the 2013 draft for Nerlens Noel and future first-round pick.

Just as the Sixers were becoming “his” team, Turner was sent packing to a new zip code. In his mind, he never got a fair shake at trying to the be the guy he was drafted to be in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to shoulder it, to tell you the truth,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t start my first two years, but numbers wise I thought I did well. Nobody averaged more than 13 or 14. We were a great unit. My third year, my first year starting, I thought I did pretty well for a first-year starter. We missed the playoffs, which is always tough. Within the next year, it got blown up.”

Turner reiterated that in his mind, he wasn’t allowed the leash to become a franchise guy. But it wasn’t all for naught in Philadelphia.

“Honest opinion, I don’t think I ever fully got the chance,” Turner said. “But I got the chance to do a lot of great things. Learn how to win, learn how to defend, learn how to prepare.”

Since leaving Philly, Turner’s role in the NBA has shifted from a potential franchise player to a serviceable role man on a playoff caliber team.

Last summer, Turner inked a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after his stint with Indiana, and then two years with the Boston Celtics. Beyond the years in Philly, Turner’s life in the Association has been kind to him.

“It’s been fine,” Turner said. “On the up and up, I was fortunate to make the playoffs every year since leaving Philly. I made the playoffs two out of three, or three out of the four years that I was here. It’s cool, it’s a blessing. Healthy, stable, and living the dream.”

On Wednesday night, Turner returned to Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center to square off against his old team. Nowadays, this version of the Sixers is much different than the one he left behind. A process that nearly began with jettisoning Turner to the Pacers feels near completion, and the energy Turner once felt on the court in a Sixers uniform is returning in full force.

When walking around the building, this time as a visitor, Turner takes appreciation in seeing some old faces. The guys “behind the scenes” as he put it, always are welcoming. Brett Brown, Turner’s former coach, never fails to show him love, and the arena in South Philly, Turner says, is always a great reminder of where he came from.

Turner thinks the process that was kicked off with getting rid of him and his core teammates is promising, though.

“It’s turning around,” Turner said.  “Just off the first eye glance, I know Coach Brown can coach his butt off. Even the fact that they’re getting up a real practice facility says a lot. Obviously on the court, the energy. You see on tv before, it’s more sold out. When you see the Sixers sometimes it would be a joke, in regards to how many games they lost, or whatever. But now it’s kind of like you’re going to see some great highlights, you’re watching a lot of energy from the crowd and things. I’m happy for them. It seems like it’s trending in the right direction.”

It wasn’t always rainbows and sunshine for Turner in Philadelphia; he would be reminded of that as he was greeted with boo’s from the crowd when he checked into the game for the first time Wednesday night. The city of brotherly love has a reputation that doesn’t necessarily precede its name.

“Much is given, much is expected,” he said. “One thing is, when you get kind of labeled as whatever, you kind of get tagged for the most critical stuff. I saw how sometimes Iguodala would get blamed for everything, and then I kind of moved into that. I went from the cute little kid, to moving into that responsibility. Then MCW (Michael Carter-Williams) went from that position. It’s just kind of, you know, part of the game.”

The harshness of the city, and Turner’s situation particularly, helped guide him through his career after Philadelphia. In Turner’s words, “The only way to go from here, in a certain sense, is up.”

Portland’s sixth man has lived a long, lucrative life in the NBA, even if it didn’t go exactly how it was initially planned to. Turner was quick to point out that any time he heard someone complain during his travels around the league, at least they weren’t facing the wrath of Philadelphia.

“Going into new situations, people are like, ‘Hey they do this or they do that,’ and I’m like are y’all serious,” Turner said with a smile. “Go to Philly and see what they’ll do to y’all.”

Maybe his time spent in Philadelphia didn’t turn out the way fans had hoped, but Turner found out quickly there was a spot for him in the league as a former second overall pick, and that his career has gone just the way it was supposed to.

“I’m a firm believer in everything is supposed to happen how it’s supposed to happen,” Turner said. “Regardless of which, it’s a blessing.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA AM: The First 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

Steve Kyler

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The Thanksgiving 2018 NBA Mock Draft

With College Basketball getting underway and things starting to get interesting in the standings of the NBA, what better time to drop a 2018 Mock Draft than on Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind here is my first Mock Draft of the 2018 Season, look for more of these are we march on (and hopefully you like the new Mock Draft table design.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this summer.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would convey.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out our Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA

NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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